Nina Scaletti’s A Bitter Spring is a coming-of-age story featuring Mae, the fifteen-year-old middle sister in a trio named after their birth months in reverse age order: the youngest is April while the oldest is June. After these three suffer the loss of their father, they move “up state” to live with their grandparents, a firm but loving couple. The move to a rural community, particularly under the tragic circumstances, is hard on the girls, who are dealing with feelings of loss and abandonment in addition to the typical challenges adolescence presents, including burgeoning sexuality, self-image, and making friends. Mae, who struggles with her weight, becomes the target of bullies, who harass her repeatedly.
The bullying Mae experiences is merciless, often focused on her weight with an undercurrent of homophobia, not unlike the harassment countless children experience on a daily basis in real life, for which there are few, if any, legal remedies in the United States. If the bullying is tied to a protected characteristic, like race, nationality, sex, or disability, then there may be remedies available to the victim under state and federal laws, such as Title IX. Most bullying, however, falls outside of these categories, leaving victims with little legal recourse. If the bullying escalates, such as if it becomes physical, then it may violate a state’s criminal laws. The novel mentions the possibility of criminal prosecution at one point, but otherwise, the bullying goes on without legal intervention, the way it usually does in schools across the country.
My only complaint (a minor one) about this novel is that I could not place the time period until I was well into it. I initially thought the novel took place in the late 1990s, both because the setting felt like my high school back in the late 1990s and because of a reference to “an old calendar from 1996,” but then I read this line about 15% of the way in: “My civics class was taught by an old woman from a book twenty-years out of date (it still referred to Russia as the USSR).” The USSR dissolved in 1991; add twenty years and you get 2011 — but no one has cell phones, laptops, or social media, and someone has inexplicably retained an old calendar for 15 years. The USSR reference produced a moment of confusion, which resolved after I came across a few more late ‘90s references and saw confirmation of the year at the end: 1998-1999.
Overall, A Bitter Spring is an engrossing read, particularly because it addresses a subject that touches many children’s lives. Scaletti’s hopeful, but not overly sweet, ending was fitting for a tale about adolescence, a challenging time when there aren’t always happy endings, at least not in the short-term. This novel would be a good choice for parents, who may remember these trying years (and the late 1990s references) as they prepare to steer their own children through it, and for young adults, who may identify with Mae, even if she’s from my time and not theirs. Sadly, bullying is timeless.